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UFC defends fighter pay, disputes low wage share... that they reported themselves

The UFC’s COO tried to defend their controversial low fighter pay.

2019 UFC Performance Institute Panel and UFC Fight Night Shenzhen Press Conference
UFC President Dana White with UFC COO Lawrence Epstein.
Photo by Yifan Ding/Getty Images

The UFC has been immensely successful and lucrative, with the organization repeatedly boasting about breaking all their financial records year after year. One of the biggest criticisms about the MMA world leader though has been that fighter pay hasn’t kept up with the growth, and the athletes still get a very small share of the revenue.

UFC COO Lawrence Epstein tried to defend the company, saying some of the criticism has been “completely disingenuous.” He spoke to Adam Stern of Sports Business Journal about it, and here are snippets from his post called “UFC battles narrative on fighter pay.”

Critics claim that UFC only shares 16% of its revenue with fighters when determining their split for an event. UFC COO Lawrence Epstein disputed that figure, when interviewed this month, but declined to provide specifics.

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On top of saying that fighter pay is growing, Epstein said UFC is investing heavily in growing its brand globally — for example, building several performance institutes and working to get the sport legalized in more countries. It also handles its own production, unlike major stick-and-ball sports.

“Some of the stuff is completely disingenuous,” Epstein said of the criticism over fighter pay. He believes three primary factors have led to the current situation: Paul’s focus on the issue; fighters going public with contract negotiations to gain public backing they can leverage in the talks; and broader societal shifts in America where workers are demanding higher salaries.

“With Jake Paul, he profits from the attention economy where the more attention you get, the more money you get,” Epstein said.

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UFC said it helps fighters land endorsements, citing nearly two dozen fighters who are aligned with Monster Energy, three aligned with Modelo, two with Guaranteed Rate and one apiece with Crypto.com and Dapper Labs. It also shares revenue from NFT sales 50/50 with fighters.

UFC says it provides fighters a marketing platform that, if capitalized on, can lead to major wealth like that amassed by superstar Conor McGregor or, to a lesser extent, Ronda Rousey.

Let’s go over some of his arguments, which they have already repeated in past attempts to defend fighter pay.

  • Perhaps the biggest issue is how Epstein — and the actual article — frames this as a “narrative,” but in reality, “critics” did not make those claims about the revenue share. The UFC themselves did. UFC released those revenue share figures as part of the antitrust lawsuit, and it also showed how they had a target goal to maintain fighter pay at 17% of the revenue for years.
  • Is fighter pay only an issue due to other companies’ workers recently demanding higher salaries, and Jake Paul’s trolling? It is more than fair to question Paul’s motivations, but will they contest the actual points and issues he’s raised? Are we also going to blame it on that and just ignore the very long history of documented low fighter pay and wage share, that again — UFC themselves reported?
  • “Fighter pay is growing” is the same defense UFC has used for years. Yes, technically fighter pay has risen, but they conveniently leave out how the promotion’s profits have significantly grown even more. We’ve already discussed this in-depth before, but this line still holds true: “While fighters are definitely making more than they did in 2005, so are the promoters. In fact, the gap between the fighters and the promotion has only increased over the last 15 years.”
  • Speaking of “disingenuous,” saying that UFC “handles its own production” implies that the promotion has costs so great, and banks on readers not knowing that a lot of those monetary figures have actually already been released. We already have a good idea of what their expenses are per event and per year, and as they’ve released and repeatedly bragged about, UFC’s profits are still immense despite all of that.
  • UFC saying they provide “a marketing platform” and helped around 30 fighters “land endorsements” ignore how they’ve previously banned outside sponsorships for every other fighter. That move has actually been very lucrative for the UFC, as now almost all sponsorships go directly to them, while fighters do not get a cut.
  • It’s also worth pointing out that while they brought up McGregor and Rousey’s “major wealth,” they’re arguably the two most underpaid fighters ever, if you consider the amount of money they brought in for the UFC. They only got a small slice of the pie, which is why even boxers that draw far less PPVs routinely get paid more. Both superstars did earn millions from their UFC careers, but they were worth exponentially more to the promotion.